Thursday morning we rose early as usual. Well, to be honest, we’ve been “sleeping in” till around 6:30 this whole vacation. We typically rise at 5am on a weekday, so this is more relaxing. Arno has been so indulgent and supportive of me on this trip; often rising to make coffee so I can disappear with the camera, and several times entertaining himself while I write blog posts and then again while I post them at some borrowed wireless stop. This morning we skipped the breakfast routine in order to make an early tourist stop.
Our goal for the morning was to hit Dante’s view (5475 feet elevation) in the morning light. It made sense that with the sun rising in the east, the view of Badwater Basin (5577 feet below) would be best in the morning. It was a great view despite the hazy air, and we got a better sense of where we had walked the previous afternoon. The area that we assumed was packed flat by mere human feet alone, coincided with a drain channel in the basin. People seem to have walked to the edges of the channel, rather than forcibly widening a walking path beyond what was necessary. This information was easily ascertained from our great height, and made me less irritated with the tourists.
After the view, we backtracked to the dirt roads again to find a ghost town because Arno was hoping we might find something cool. There turned out to be only minimal evidence of mining operations, and I hardly think the nomer “town” was appropriate. If the place had ever been a town, there would surely be more residue. Today there is a framed mine shaft with a steel cage around it (for safety we assumed), and nothing else but a leftover pile of tailings. I wrote for my blog while Arno cooked breakfast.
Breaking News! Death Valley has now been officially recognized by the World Meteorological Organization as the hottest spot on the planet. On July 10, 1913, a temperature of 134 F was measured at the Furnace Creek Ranch. Previously the record was believed to have been set at El Azizia, Libya, but the WMO determined that the inexperienced observer mistakenly recorded the temperature 7 degrees too high in 1922 when he used replacement instruments.
We calculated our time available, and were saddened to have to cross the Racetrack Playa off our itinerary. That’s the place where rocks appear to have been pushed across the dry desert floor. Instead we aimed for Scotty’s Castle; our last stop before leaving the park.
We drove almost 80 miles to Scotty’s Castle, still in the park. This truly is a ginormous park; apparently the largest National Park outside of Alaska, and the 5th largest in the U.S. at 5,269 square miles. The trip took about two hours, and at one point we climbed high up into the mountains and were able to look behind us and spot Mt. Whitney. There are 85 air miles between Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the contiguous United States, and Mt. Whitney, at 14,495 feet, the highest point. (They’re also in the same state!)
Prior to this trip I had heard about Scotty’s Castle, but had no idea what it was. We were in for a treat! This amazing Spanish style house is also called Death Valley Ranch. It was built by Albert and Bessie Johnson, two young and wealthy adventure-seekers from Chicago. Scotty (Walter Scott), our tour guide told us, was famous for being famous. He began working for Buffalo Bill Cody in his Wild West Show, but after being fired, began one heck of an investment fraud. Scotty duped many, but when he found physically disabled Chicagoan Albert Johnson, he thought he had hit the jackpot. What were the odds that Johnson would ever take the trouble to visit Death Valley and discover that Scotty’s famed gold mine didn’t exist?
Johnson did come to Death Valley however, and Scotty desperately cooked up a plan with his buddies to fake a pistol battle and robbery in a desert canyon, intended to scare the bejeebers out of Johnson and send him howling back home. The buddies accidentally shot Scotty’s brother in the leg, and the whole plot was revealed. In the meantime, Johnson was having the time of his life, and all his fantasies about the Wild West had come true in that one crazy afternoon. So he continued to fund Scotty, who looked after the property that the Johnsons began acquiring in 1915.
Bessie and Albert built the gorgeous mansion near a generous spring that supplied power and water. They built Scotty his own room in the mansion, as well as his own house, 4 miles up the canyon. When the Johnsons were away, Scotty used the setting to dupe a growing list of investors in his gold mine, and not one of them saw a return on their investment except Johnson, who got a mad storyteller and a desert guide out of the bargain.
Today the mansion is a museum, owned by the Park Service. The place is stuffed with all the original furnishings, to include the leather curtains, a refrigerator and freezer, and Albert’s own invented electric fixtures. Since I am a dragon collector, I was delighted to see dragons scattered throughout the place. Though Bessie was an intensely devout Christian, and took it upon herself to preach every Sunday, she apparently loved the mythical as well. Our tour ended in the music room (where Bessie held her sermons), and we were treated to a song from their Welte-Mignon Pipe Organ.
Finally we left the park and bent our way north, hoping to find some greenery to camp in for the night. We found the ghost town of Palmetto, right beside the highway. It is the site of lots of broken down stone buildings and is much more interesting than the one we investigated in Death Valley. So Arno got his ghost town fix, which made me happy.
The truck was almost running on fumes when we finally made it to Big Pine, California. After feeding our ride, the attendant told us we could camp right there in town. The spot we found was unexpectedly beautiful. We parked the truck and carried our gear across a creek by stepping on stones. We fell asleep to the sound of rushing water; a different environment entirely from Death Valley.